The whole world’s attention was on Paolo Banchero as the United States prepared to take on Italy.
Banchero seemed set to play for Italy at this World Cup before making a seemingly sudden about-face and joining Team USA. His communication publicly or behind the scenes was not great and it seemed to catch everyone off guard. Italy, poised to build its basketball program around Banchero for the next decade, had to pivot fairly quickly.
They clearly did OK with Simone Fontecchio leading the way for Italy to reach the quarterfinal.
Yet, here was the matchup. The stark contrast of what Banchero could have done with Italy and his secondary role with the United States at the forefront.
The question everyone has asked — from Italy fans to Orlando Magic fans — was did Banchero make the right decision? Is playing for Team USA the best thing for him? There were arguments for both sides of the equation.
Would Tuesday’s 100-63 U.S. win confirm this was the right decision? Not quite. The U.S. would probably be heavy favorites to win in an elimination game even if Banchero were lining up for the Azzurri.
Paolo Banchero made a tough decision joining Team USA over Italy for the FIBA World Cup. But it has proven correct as the U.S. has forced Banchero to develop and showcase strengths beyond his scoring.
Yet, Banchero did plenty to show up Italy in this game. His defense and intensity in areas beyond his scoring have come out to the forefront throughout this FIBA World Cup. That is what Banchero has learned this tournament, adding to parts of his game he did not emphasize with the Magic or even at Duke.
This was a different Banchero. Something nobody has seen.
This was not about beating Italy or making a statement against a team he spurned. Banchero was not here to think about what could have been, only on the task at hand. He was focused on getting the win. The past was the past.
He was asked at the U.S.’s practice if he had a message for Italian fans still upset over his decision to play with the U.S. He gave a one-word answer: “No.”
Banchero explained himself further in an article in Italy’s GQ and to The Athletic. He was following his mother’s footsteps and grew up in the U.S. This was something of a question of what would be best for Banchero’s growth and development.
Excuse Banchero for not getting wrapped up into the narratives. There was work to do.
That has been the approach he has had to have in his secondary role off the bench. And that has provided a ton of valuable lessons for him as he continues to grow and develop.
Banchero has had a fairly consistent stat line throughout this tournament — adding another eight points on 4-for-8 shooting with five rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block. He has spent a good chunk of this tournament filling the stat sheet beyond the scoring while still finding a way to get near 10 points per game (mostly from forcing his way to the line, which he did not in this game).
Banchero’s offense has subsisted mostly on dump downs and dunks. In this game, he added a steal for a runout layup and then Tyrese Haliburton set him up with a between-the-legs lob for an alley-oop dunk.
He had one sequence where he got that steal for a layup and then returned down the court for a blocked shot that led to an Austin Reaves three. Even the lob play from Haliburton came because Banchero and Haliburton executed a smothering trap at midcourt.
And that is ultimately why Banchero made the right choice. He could have gone with Italy and reinforced his already strong offensive game. Despite his fairly poor shooting percentages — he is dealing with a thumb injury that he has said cannot get worse so he is playing through them — Banchero has been better in every other facet.
A lot of that has to do with his role. Team USA asked him to be a defender and not a scorer. They challenged him and put him at center when that was something the Magic rarely did (if at all) last year. They pushed Banchero to expand his game and go outside of his comfort zone.
That is what a player has to do when they join Team USA. Unlike other national teams, this is a team full of NBA stars. That has always been a strength (and something of a weakness) about this team.
They had to figure out their pecking order. There have been successes (Anthony Edwards) and failures (Brandon Ingram) on that front. But everyone had to find their role quickly and play it to help the team win.
That is the ultimate goal. And so, the U.S. saw Banchero as a potentially versatile defender and challenged him to succeed in that role.
After watching him struggle with his defense at times as most rookies do, that was not something anybody could have expected. Banchero has turned himself into an indispensable defender for a second unit that is winning these games for the U.S. — he was +27 in the U.S.’s win Tuesday.
This could not have worked out any better for the U.S. It is yet to be seen how much of this defense will carry over to training camp in one month. The Magic are seeing this too and likely ready to rely on Banchero to bring some of this defensive intensity back to the NBA.
That is something Banchero would not have gotten playing for Italy. He would have been the leading scorer and main attacker and reinforced skills he already had (and likely spent the first part of his offseason improving).
With Team USA, he has had to learn and gain new skills. He has become a more complete player.
The Magic can only be excited that he can bring these skills back to the team. And this is why playing for Team USA was the right choice.
Banchero has taken advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow. He has made a real impact for Team USA and their bid to win the gold medal — they are guaranteed to play for a medal now that they have reached the semifinals. That is all anyone could have asked for.
Banchero made the right choice for himself and his career by leaving his comfort zone and exploring the unexplored or perhaps reduced parts of his game and his potential. The Magic can use that now and Banchero will be a better player for it.